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FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. (Kristen Jordan Shamus, Freep.com)

There aren't many among the lantana, the butterfly bushes or the milkweed plants in Joe Derek's Farmington Hills yard.

Butterflies are strikingly absent this year from his naturally landscaped property off 10 Mile Road, where he grows two acres of native plants known to draw the fluttering beauties.

"Normally, at this time of year, I'd see hundreds," says Derek, former naturalist for the City of Farmington Hills. "In my life, I've never seen a season where we're not seeing butterflies really of any kind."

They're missing from Diane Pruden's yard in Milford, too.

"It's just horrible," says Pruden, a monarch conservationist for the nonprofit group Monarch Watch. "I've got plants that should be covered with eggs and caterpillars right now, and there are just none to be seen."

Butterfly enthusiasts say there's a dearth of butterflies in Michigan this year. Official data are still being collected by monitoring groups around the state, but anecdotally, at least, the outlook is grim.

Holli Ward, executive director of the Michigan Butterflies Project based in Jenison, near Grand Rapids, says she has seen disappointingly few monarchs this year, the type she studies most.

"We go out and are looking, looking, inspecting thoroughly," she says. "On a good day, we're looking at hundreds of milkweed stalks - every week, twice a week since early June. We have not seen a single egg or caterpillar."

Her group examines milkweed because it is the only plant monarchs use to lay their eggs; it's also a food source in their early days as caterpillars.

Ward is hopeful it'll get better later into the season, but she has her doubts.

"This year's cooler, wetter spring really didn't help," Ward says. "Couple that with last year's extremely hot, extremely dry weather, and it's a terrible situation for monarchs."

Besides the weather, part of the problem is development of prairies and grasslands, farming practices that have all but eliminated milkweed and other native plants from corn and soybean fields through the heartland, and suburban landscaping with nonnative plants. Combined, these factors have wiped out huge swaths of habitat that used to lure and feed these delicate insects.

Widespread use of pesticides - especially large-scale spraying for mosquitoes and gypsy moths - also kills caterpillars. Rampant use of herbicides in landscaping also contributes to the problem, destroying many native plants the butterflies need to survive.

Without enough of the right plants, the number of butterflies gracing the nation's gardens will continue to decline, says Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association.

"Every single day, the number of butterflies decreases in North America," Glassberg says. "Every time someone takes a meadow and turns it into a parking lot, they are removing large numbers of butterflies from North America. And that happens, of course, every single day."

Although many enthusiasts are concerned about the lack of butterflies this year, Ashley Anne Wick, biological research director at the Kalamazoo Nature Center who heads up the Michigan Butterfly Network, says it's still too soon to sound the alarm bells.

"One year is not enough to really say anything definitely," said Wick. "I would come from a more hopeful standpoint that they'll rebound as long as people keep providing havens for them, nectar sources, host plants and planting native species on their lots.

"That's why we're starting the Michigan Butterfly Network to monitor these changes and catch the species on decline before they become endangered. That way, we can see what habitat management changes we can make before the population declines too drastically."

Now in its first full year, the Michigan Butterfly Network is a program of the Kalamazoo Nature Center and is spreading beyond the western part of the state with the aim of taking a statewide butterfly census six times a year.

Among the vital changes that need to take place to help these fragile creatures rebound, experts agree, is introducing more butterfly-friendly native plants to neighborhoods, parks and even front porches.

"It's going to take a lot of work," Ward says. "There are some amazing strong advocates out there who work really hard, but it's going to take more than the advocates. Until people start seeing this in the mainstream media, and understanding what's happening, why that is and what they can do to help, there's little hope."

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus

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